Fascination: LOCKDOWN!

The NEW and improved Logic Boards were designed, and a tentative plan was made to manufacture them, transfer the parts over, and snap-in new CPLDs, but before this could happen, there were a few hurdles to overcome.  First, find new CPLDs to replace the failed ones.  That was fairly easy.  Even though the manufacturer, XILINX, had stopped producing them in 2011, they could still be found on eBay for $15-25.  Second, and the MOST important, how do I clone the program from the GOOD boards to the blank CPLDs on the NEW boards?

CPLDs are loaded with instructions and rules via a JTAG Programmer.  Okay, next task – find a programmer.  That was easy… eBay!  $30 later, I had one.  Now, what to DO with it?  Reading and writing the device requires software from XILINX.  Luckily, they still provided the Development Environment, free of charge, on their website- a 6GB download.  GOT it!  Uh oh!  The Development Environment is free, but requires a license.  I created an account and requested one.  I was fully expecting them to demand hundreds of dollars for it, but amazingly enough, it was FREE for hobbyists!  So NOW we were ready to go!

Saturday, February 21, I popped-in on PNatB and connected my JTAG Programmer to one of the functioning boards.  Lights!  Camera!  Action?  FAIL!  Up popped an error message that said the CPLD was “Read Protected” and that the game software was essentially locked-down and could not be copied OFF of the chip.  DAMN!  Just in case, how about connecting it to the OTHER working board?  Same error… “Read Protected.”  And with that, the plan of cloning the software from a working old CPLD onto new blank ones got tossed into the trash.

There WAS one possible alternative along this path – to write a NEW game program and load THAT one onto the brand new boards.  Two things put the kibosh on this idea.  First, I’d have to learn the programming language and write it.  Second, and probably most important, doing THAT would mean loading the new program onto technology that is KNOWN to fail and is no longer made.  In other words, I COULD learn and load the new CPLDs, but eventually THOSE new ones would also fail and we’d be right back in the same predicament.  A new solution would have to do.  And by new, I mean OLD… a newly created version of what worked in the past.  Relay Logic.

next… New Life from Old Roots


Fascination: Can I Help?

This is the story of game play restoration of Playland Not At The Beach’s Fascination Tables.

While checking on the Playland Museum’s Website, I noticed that their Fascination Page had a message saying their Tables were down.

Sorry.  Not today.

Sorry. Not today.

Now, since I’m an old time tech with a long history of servicing Pinball Machines, Video Games, Juke Boxes, Vending Machines, Telephone Systems, you name it, I emailed PNatB to volunteer my services.  I just KNEW I’d easily be able to get their electromechanical toys working!  Mind you, I had NO idea of their “conversion” history; I thought they were still running on the old Relay Logic system.

Friday (01/30/2015), I grabbed Todd and one of my best friends, Paul, who has his own history in getting old stuff working, and visited the Playland Museum.  Once there, we met with two of the techs responsible for most of the maintenance on their collection of Coin-operated games and antiques.  We all went to the Fascination Parlor and the unexpected happened… they handed me four Logic Boards and said, “our machines were converted.”

In my head, I screamed, “AHHHHHHHH!”  I was NOT expecting this!

Defective Fascination Board

Defective Fascination Board

OK, I thought, it won’t be THAT bad, maybe the boards aren’t too proprietary and can be serviced.  It looks simple enough; a few Schmitt Trigger ICs, caps, lots of resistors and transistors… easy peasy!

Then, I flipped one of them over and… Dun, dun, DUUUUUUUN… saw the giant chip on the back of it.

Complex Programmable Logic Device (CPLD)

Complex Programmable Logic Device (CPLD)

What is it?  It’s a Complex Programmable Logic Device or CPLD.

Developed in 1996 (perhaps earlier), CPLDs were designed to perform the same tasks as hundreds of Logic Gates, thus replacing the discrete ICs and Relays found in older equipment and Circuit Boards.  The question now became… did the problems lie in the CPLDs or was there something wrong with the supporting components?  As it turns out, it was both.

None of the tables appeared to be working.  Paul noticed a power supply issue and quickly corrected it, bringing one Lane back to life.  He also discovered a bad solder joint on the sound card which prevented a Game Start command from being sent to the tables.  Once that was fixed, we turned to evaluating the other boards and, after testing, placed an additional one back in service.  The only problem… THAT Board was playing a “Blackout” game.  For now, this would have to do.  Further repairs would need to be done, but where to start?  Documentation.

The Logic Boards on the Fascination Tables were basic enough, but it’s still advantageous to have a schematic and PCB layout, to more easily understand the “hows” and “whys” of board operations.  I fired-up my handy-dandy CAD programs to do these and got to work.

Drawing defective board into CAD

Drawing defective board into CAD

Upon completion, the relationship between the sections and components could more easily be followed.  Unfortunately, all signs pointed to a CPLD failure.

The folks who designed the original Fascination conversion used CPLDs that were made to plug into a socket, however they actually SOLDERED all 84 pins to the Circuit Board.  There was NO way I was going to de-solder all that mess, replace the CPLDs, and solder ALL those TINY pins back again!  A PCB re-design was in order.  Knowing how the components interconnected allowed me to come up with a “new and improved” version of the board.  While I was at it, I also removed components and circuits that were never used.  Once new boards were manufactured, all the other parts could easily be relocated to my new design, saving production costs.  THIS was the original plan of attack for “Saving Fascination.”


Saving Fascination

Fascination is an amusement game, found in many seaside amusement parks, from the 1920s.  It’s a combination of Skee Ball and Bingo.  Players roll a rubber ball down a four-foot table into one of twenty-four holes.  A switch in each of those holes detects the ball and lights a corresponding lamp on the table’s backglass.  The object of the game is to light 5 lamps in-a-row.  Winners can be paid in Tickets, Prizes, or Cash.

Fascination was such a popular game that there were THREE Fascination Parlors in San Francisco alone!  One was located at Playland at the Beach and another was on Market Street.  I’m not sure where the third one was.  Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk had a Parlor, as did Circus Circus in Reno and Las Vegas.  Sadly, all of those Parlors are gone now.

Read more about Fascination here…

The original tables were completely electromechanical beasts with large relay racks to control them and detect “wins” in any of twelve paths.  Over the years, many Parlors decided, for whatever reason, that their machines needed to be “modernized.”  Each operator came up with different methods and followed different paths to accomplish this.  All involved ripping out the relays and ball switches to replace them with Logic Boards and optical Ball Detectors.

Who would ever predict that the act of “modernizing” these machines would actually CONTRIBUTE to their demise.  Let me explain…

As Logic Boards in the “modernized” tables began to die, many Parlor Operators discovered that there was no one to turn to, to repair them.  Oh sure, you could attempt to go back to the company or individual(s) who performed the upgrades, but where WERE they?  Vanished.  Gone out-of-business, retired, or worse… dead!  Now what?  No documentation exists for the Logic Boards, mainly because all the upgrades were proprietary.  Every vendor had a different idea on HOW to do it.  Since there were NO standards for doing conversions, there’s also no universal solution to repair dead equipment.  This situation spelled doom for Fascination Tables everywhere.

As I mentioned earlier, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk had a Fascination Parlor

Former Fascination Parlor at Santa Cruz

Former Fascination Parlor at Santa Cruz

and their converted Fascination Tables began falling victim to this issue.  As more and more of their “modernized” tables lost their Logic Boards, SCBB found themselves dedicating considerable (and valuable) Real Estate to a growing number of dead tables.  In 2008, the difficult decision to close the Parlor and remove all of the machines was made.  Some of them were sold to collectors and disappeared from the public eye.  Luckily, four of them were donated to Playland-Not-At-The-Beach, in El Cerrito, where they were placed in service in 2009.

In 2014, the Logic Boards in these rescued tables began following their siblings to the grave. next…

“Can I help?”